Richard Levin in his book ‘When the sleeping grass awakens’ suggested that the 1982 constitutional upgrade of Liqoqo into an all-powerful; Supreme Council of State constituted a prescription for the power struggles that followed the death of King Sobhuza.
King Mswati’s father had ruled Swaziland with a firm hand from 1973 when he consolidated power and transformed himself into an absolute monarch with both executive and legislative powers.
His desire to maintain control over the country meant that he was reluctant to delegate authority throughout his reign. If he did, it was only to a select clique. During his lifetime everything revolved around him. Such can be picked and is in fact evident in the wording of the 1973 Decree that banned political parties and introduced the country’s long state of emergency.
Here the king referred to the nation or country as ‘my subjects’, ‘my people’, ‘my cabinet ministers’, and ‘my armed forces’. He made full use of the tremendous power he had accrued over the years to ensure that members of government, parliament and high-ranking officials were loyal to him.
Over years, Swazis got accustomed to being ruled by a paternalistic king. There is little doubt therefore that King Sobhuza II established the conditions necessary for the rise and entrenching of Liqoqo power after his death. Liqoqo was unveiled in a Government Gazette on August 25, 1982 just before Sobhuza II’s funeral.
Members of Liqoqo were sworn in a month later at Lozitha palace. Questions were raised why Liqoqo was not introduced to the nation at the Royal Kraal in accordance with established practice and tradition? Such incidents could only fuel questions about the credibility of the Liqoqo and Sobhuza’s plans for the traditional body.
Establishing a power base was one of the greatest challenges facing the Liqoqo. Just as King Sobhuza had been all powerful in his lifetime, Liqoqo wasted little time in emulating the late king.
Liqoqo’s early success and survival could be attributed to being adept to dealing with public misgivings and discontent. The Two Liqoqo strongmen, Prince Mfanasibili and Prince Bhekimpi, were tactical masters in this regard.
They frequently patronised the public and resorted to platitudes that portrayed them as the guardians of the nation. On one occasion Prince Bhekimpi advised that the nation should ‘wait and leave everything to Emalangeni (Dlamini family) who will fix everything.’
Earlier on he had told people who desired to know what was happening in the country to only enquire from those in authority (presumably he was referring to the royal family).
Prince Bhekimpi believed the nation should be made to understand that state matters were for ‘the elders and no Tom, Dick or Harry could discuss them because they would not understand’.
Like Sobhuza II, Liqoqo members were not daunted by adverse public opinion. Instead, they spewed vitriol and instituted stern action against detractors.
On one occasion Prince Bhekimpi boldly declared that ‘We won’t be intimidated by any people’ and on another occasion warned that ‘they will not tolerate dark corner meetings’ in reference to anyone meeting to discuss political events in the country.
Such messages left little doubt as to who was in charge of the country. Equally, it led Liqoqo members like Prince Mfanasibili being viewed as ‘tyrants’.
As Liqoqo consolidated power, they did not always limit themselves to stern warnings and threats. When words failed to produce the desired results they took action. Strong opponents of the regime were forced to flee the country.
Demonstrators protesting the removal of Indlovukazi Dzeliwe faced harsh reaction from the armed forces. What Liqoqo succeeded in doing though was bring the entire Tinkhundla none party political system (introduced by Sobhuza in 1978) into disrepute.
In hindsight, it is evident that the system that was so dear to the aging monarch had been the enabler of the chaos that ensued post-Sobhuza II era. Interestingly, Liqoqo soon sold themselves as protectors of King Sobhuza II’s legacy.
They ran with this line to patronise the nation. Prince Mfanasibili and Prime Minister Prince Bhekimpi frequently claimed they were acting to ensure the country was not taken over by so -called modernists.
It is important to note that Prince Mfanasibili regarded himself as the leader of the conservative faction of the royal family. He enjoyed support from Prince Mfanawenkosi Maseko, George Msibi, RV Dlamini, Polycarp Dlamini from among many other members of the royal family.
In essence, the traditionalists wished to retain the status quo for many reasons but key among them being gaining access to such cash cows like Tibiyo Taka Ngwane and Tisuka. Prince Mfanasibili called on Swazis ‘to stand behind the Liqoqo in its efforts to protect the country from undesirable influences’.
Some writers argue that the post-Sobhuza upheavals were in fact fuelled by power struggles between the traditionalist camp and progressive factions. Others, like Richard Levin, Robert Davies, Dan O’Meara and Sipho Dlamini maintain that the post-Sobhuza struggles were not based on ideological differences.
The progressive was not rendered invisible in the ensuing fiasco. If anything, they occupied the other end of the pendulum; desiring to lead Swaziland towards a more democratic state where the country establishes a constitutional monarchy in the mould of the one in Lesotho.
Within the royal family there were prominent people who were sympathetic to reforming the country like Prince Mabandla, Prince Gabheni, and then Deputy Prime Minister Ben Nsibandze who all wanted changes to the political order established by the late King Sobhuza.
In Liqoqo’s world view, however, Prince Mabandla was an integral part of this reformist group and more dangerous because he was the head of government. His actions and resilience attracted concerted vilification from Liqoqo.
However, he could count on the sympathy and support of the incumbent Indlovukazi. Although Indlovukazi Dzeliwe was a key member of the royal family, having been personally selected by the late king, she did not appear to fit the mould crafted by Liqoqo.
By sidelining Liqoqo and veering towards Prince Mabandla’s political direction, Dzeliwe made powerful enemies within the traditionalist camp. Prince Mfanasibili, for example, believed the Indlovukazi had taken one of the princes ‘into her stomach’ (made him her son).
The late King Sobhuza’s wife Inkhosikati LaMasuku. The present Indlovukazi Ntombi Tfwala was her domestic worker.
The prince in question was the late Prince Gabheni and believed she wanted to crown him king while Prince Makhosetive languished in exile. While there may have been significant differences between the traditionalists and modernists, there is little basis to suggest their fights after King Sobhuza death were ideological.
Members of the progressive camp and university students supported Indlovukazi Dzeliwe during this siege. Even PUDEMO, the newly formed liberation movement of the early 80’s, supported the monarchy and called for it to assume a new ceremonial role.
Such overwhelming support was given traction by Liqoqo’s apparent disrespect and disregard for traditional institutions. This became apparent during the forced removal of Indlovukazi Dzeliwe and the Liqoqo’s subsequent demands that chiefs pledge loyalty to newly crowned Indlovukazi Ntombi.
While the modernists may have been dissatisfied with the political climate in the country, politically they had not reached the stage of seeking fundamental change in the overall body politics of the country. For many, the monarchy represented the essence of Swaziland that needed to be preserved and protected.
Friction and disagreements within the royal family became commonplace and played themselves out in public as factions tried to outmanoeuvre each other. Prince Mfanasibili featured prominently in such squabbles. Swazis were constantly warned by Liqoqo to beware of ‘contenders for the throne’.
There was widespread belief that Prince Mfanasibili was by now using his position and power within the Liqoqo to revive his father’s claim to the throne. Historically, controversy has always surrounded the position of Prince Mfanasibili’s father, Makhosikhosi, who was the late King Sobhuza II’s step-brother.
Is it interesting how Swazis today would react if a future king was not to come from any of the king’s present children.
Mandla Hlathwayo is former Illovo Chief Executive Officer. He contributes as part of our alternative history series. He writes in his personal capacity.